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“Sales of art and antiques are booming as buyers seek more reliable investments during the credit crunch” wrote The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, April 22 in reference to the survey of some 50 members of the art and antiques division of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Financial Times and Channel 4 News all followed with similarly upbeat articles.

A quarterly survey of ‘sentiment’ among RICS’s 140 art and antiques surveyors has long been mooted within the RICS whose statistics department publish a popular monthly appraisal of the housing market survey. The RICS Art & Antiques Market Survey works on much the same model: asking professionals their opinions about different aspects of the market – whether it is ‘falling’, ‘the same’ or ‘rising’. The number crunching and evaluation is done by the RICS.

Results were surprisingly positive for the first quarter of 2008. Some 36 per cent of ‘surveyors’ (most but not all the contributors were auctioneers) felt prices had generally risen over the past three months with only 16 per cent opining they had fallen. The strongest performing sub-sector was silver, where 40 per cent more surveyors reported a rise rather than a fall in lot prices in the wake of rising precious metal prices while 14 more surveyors reported price rises rather than falls.

But – if these were the figures carried by most of the newspapers – then, as ever, closer analysis of the figures revealed a more complex situation. With the exception of silver – that had received a fillip at all price levels (and particularly at the lower end of the market where scrap values have an important bearing on price) – the positives in the market were generally to be found in the higher price levels.

A majority of those questioned felt prices were falling in the ‘up to £1000’ category for pictures, ceramics and clocks and recorded little change in the fortunes of lower value furniture. The last three months had, however, seen the upper reaches of the market remain strong and it was this that had skewed the overall results. A robust demand for 20th century pictures and contemporary art, that had attracted investors, was also noted.

Here the comments of RICS members were important: "Ordinary pieces make ordinary prices. The market wants exceptional pieces, either in quality, condition or decoration”said Guy Schooling of Standsted Mountfitchet auctioneers Sworders. “Prices and demand have been generally good this year, due to a lack of available goods. This has been exacerbated by the closure of local salerooms and rooms ceasing their general sales."

Asked how they see outlook over the next quarter, half of respondents expected little change in sales volume from April to June but 33 per cent were predicting a rise. Some 60 per cent did not expect prices to change and a further 36 per cent thought they would rise.

The Arts and Antiques Market Survey is available in full from the RICS web site www.rics.org